I decided to do something a little different the other day. This doesn’t seem to have much to do with science per se, but eventually perhaps it will. Just how sensitive are a musician’s “hands” to their instrument?
For over two decades I have been playing electronic drums, designing my own in the pre-MIDI days, and currently playing a system based on a Roland TD-20 MIDI module. For many years prior I played acoustic drums. As I am not an economy size human, being a giant only in the land of dwarves and peoples of a similarly diminutive proportion who might look upon my 5’10″ 142 pound frame with wonder, and also having what drummers call “a light touch”, I have always tended toward lighter and smaller sticks. While I used 5A’s on the acoustics (the more robust 5B’s or 2′s or 3′s common in rock), I switched to the relatively diminutive 7A for the electronics (stick numbering is quite odd, but in general, B’s are heftier than A’s and small numbers are longer and fatter than higher numbers). I was never a basher, and there’s even less reason to bash electronic drums, so the switch made some sense. Consequently, I have been using the same model Calato Regal Tip 7A’s since the early 80′s. That changed today.
My normal sticks are made of hickory, which is perhaps the most common wood used for drum sticks. They also have a bit of varnish on them which I like, especially as the stick warms up. The other day I noticed that Pro-Mark (a very popular brand) makes a series of “signature” sticks manufactured to the specs of various artists. I came across one very interesting pair, the Bill Bruford model. Now, I’ve been a fan of Mr. Bruford’s work from his days with Yes, through various versions of King Crimson, UK, his own band Bruford, and a variety of other groups (his latest being Earthworks). That by itself would not induce me to try these sticks. What caught my eye is that they’re between a 7A and a 5A size-wise, but they’re made out of maple instead of hickory. Maple is not as dense as hickory and many people don’t like it because they tend not to last as long and aren’t as “solid”, some folks preferring the still more dense white oak sticks. Stick lifespan is not an issue for me. In fact, I go through less than a pair per YEAR since switching to the electronics. It occurred to me that the lower density of maple might offset the larger size of the stick, so I ordered a pair. They arrived this morning and I was immediately taken aback by the added length (slightly over 16 inches versus 15 3/4 inches). Granted, they’re still shorter than a 5A but 5A’s feel like logs to me these days so I was a bit skeptical.
I just finished playing some tunes with the new sticks. The maple does seem to compensate and keeps the weight in check. The somewhat larger diameter and increased length make for a different swing feel, but in general, they feel faster and yet controllable. The only downside is that the finish is somewhat too slick for my liking so I’ll probably end up dipping the ends in some polyurethane. I started thinking about this for a minute and realized that my perfect stick would be to cut maybe 1/4 inch off of the Bill Bruford’s and add the poly. Boy, talk about splitting hairs, but I think that’s the way it is with any tool once you get very comfortable with the process; even minor changes that many people wouldn’t notice just jump out at you. Talk about your long term adaptations.
OK, so what did I play? Well, after a warm-up, I figured that playing some Bruford material might be a tad obvious, so I went looking through my collection. I finally settled on Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Tarkus which was released in 1971. Back in those days I simply could not keep up with Mr. Palmer. Although I do much better now some 35 years later, when I finish I’m still sweaty.